Science Gone Berserk

Not long ago, I wrote about how the History Channel dealt with the Norse warriors known as berserks (spoiler alert–they dealt with it badly). More recently, Brian Dunning mentioned berserks in an episode of Skeptoid on feats of superhuman strength:

Such drugs [as PCP] have also been suggested to explain groups such as the Norse berserkers, a subset of Viking shock troops who fought like enraged wild animals, impervious to pain, and contemptuous of injury. Some researchers have suggested that berserkers may have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle, as did Zulu warriors. Another theory states that they may have simply gotten really drunk, but this likely would have resulted in poorer performance in battle. It’s also possible that berserkers simply worked themselves up into a frenzy, and combined with the fight or flight response to the impending battle, did indeed gain heightened physical ability.

Berserks aren’t the focus of the episode, but Dunning covers the all the bases briefly: berserks may have taken magic mushrooms; they may have used another substance, such as alcohol (but probably not); or they may have achieved the frenzy without any mind-altering substances. The idea that berserks may have taken something seems to be pervasive, and the history of the idea is traceable and interesting. To a large extent, it has been scientists who have explored the “magic mushroom” theory. It turns out, when science gets involved in the humanities, science is not always right.

In Dunning’s “References and Further Reading” section, he lists an article called “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry” by Howard D. Fabing. This article was published in both The Scientific Monthly and The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1956. It is based on a paper Fabing presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. According to the author biography included in the article, Fabing was at the time of writing “in private practice of neurology and psychiatry.” Previously,

[he had] taught physiology and neurology at the University of Cincinnati. During World War II he was director of the School of Military Neuropsychiatry in the European Theater of Operations. His research activities have been in the fields of parkinsonism, narcolepsy, epilepsy, wartime blast concussion syndrome, shock therapies, and the neuro-chemistry of mental disorders.

Clearly, Fabing was eminently qualified to discuss neurological and psychiatric disorders. He was perhaps less qualified to discuss medieval Scandinavian history. He doesn’t directly quote a single primary document related to the Viking age, and indeed, it seems clear that he was not immediately familiar with the primary documents (many of which were available in translation in 1956, although often in that “ye olde” variety of English that no one ever spoke). He begins by giving the supposed legendary background of the berserks:

Berserk was a mighty hero in Norse mythology. Legend states that he was the grandson of the mythical eight-handed Starkadder. He was renowned for his consummate bravery and for the fury of his attack in battle. He had twelve sons who were his equals in courage. He never fought in armor but in his ber sark, which means “bearskin” in the Nordic languages. Thus the term berserk became synonymous with reckless courage. (232)

I was not familiar with a hero named Berserk. I have still not found him in any primary text. I have, however, found references to this story in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century re-tellings of Norse legendary material. For instance, the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives the following information under the entry for “berserker:”

[I]n Scandinavian mythology, the name of the twelve sons of the hero Berserk, grandson of the eight-handed Starkadder and Alfhilde. Berserk was famed for the reckless fury with which he fought, always going into battle without armour. By the daughter of of King Swafurlam, whom he had killed, he had twelve sons who were his equal in bravery. In Old Norse berserer thus became synonymous with reckless courage, and was later applied to the bodyguards of several of the Scandinavian heroes.

Starkaðr, usually Anglicized either as Starkad or Starkadder, does appear in various primary texts. There are actually two of Starkads. One or the other or both appear briefly in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and a number of sagas. Starkad the Old plays a larger role in chapters 6-8 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (translation available here) and the extremely strange Gautreks saga. Neither Starkad has a grandson named Berserk in any of these works. I suspect that the origin of this story comes from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, translation available here). In the versions of Hervarar saga that I have seen, there is no character named Berserk. The berserk father of the twelve berserk sons is named Arngrim, and in most versions Starkad does not seem to be his grandfather. There are, however, several variant texts of the saga. In this short, strange version* of Hervarar saga, called Saga Heiðreks konúngs ens vitra (The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise) Starkad does indeed seem to be Arngrim’s grandfather, and Arngrim is called “Arngrímr berserkr” (Arngrim the berserk).

So, without citing a source, Fabing recounts a garbled version of one variant of one saga. As I said, it is clear he is not familiar with the primary texts and accepts conflated and sometimes inaccurate accounts in secondary sources. Later, he gives a description of berserks that is third-hand (“A vivid description of the behavior of the Viking hoodlums is given by Schübeler, who relied on the renowned Norse historian, Munch” 234). While this description contains a lot of the usual information, it includes symptoms that are less common: “This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color” (234). These sound like medical symptoms, and they fit rather well with some of the symptoms he and other doctors have observed in patients who have taken or been given hallucinogens, but they are not common in the sagas.

Fabing goes on to note that

There is a fascinating theory that Berserksgang…may not have been a psychogenically determined habit pattern, but may rather have been the result of eating toxic mushrooms. This idea, fantastic though it may appear at first glance, has won general acceptance among Scandinavian scholars, according to Larsen. (232)

According to the endnote, this information comes from a personal communication from “H. Larsen, provost, University of Illinois.” The next note identifies him as Henning Larsen. Larsen was a professor of English who is listed as a consultant in the front matter of the Middle English Dictionary. He was also the president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. Several articles he wrote are listed in the MLA Bibliography. Still, it would have been nice if Fabing had cited some actual articles or books to show this “general acceptance.” The theory does not seem to be generally accepted among Norse scholars any more.

The reasons it is not widely accepted are clear from Fabing’s article. He notes that the mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has been “used orgiastically” by Siberian tribes. The practice was first described in 1730 (232). Notice that Siberia is not Scandinavia, and the eighteenth-century is not the Viking age. He describes the effects in some detail. Some of these effects fit with the berserker rage: “Prodigious feats of physical strength are reported to have been accomplished under its influence” (232).  Other effects would seem to be detrimental in battle: “Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sings, and dances” (W. Jochelsen qtd. in Fabing 233). Berserks would not have been effective warriors if they raged about fighting imaginary people.

One man who accidentally poisoned himself with hallucinogenic mushrooms suffered

explosive onset of diarrhea, profuse sweating, excessive salivation and vertigo. He fell asleep and wakened…completely disoriented, irrational and violent…. He did not react to deep pain stimulation, but responded to pinprick. He was disoriented in all three spheres…. He thought that he was in hell and identified the interne, nurses, and attending physicians as Christ, Satan, God or angels (Arthur Drew qtd. in Fabing 233)

Violence and imperviousness to pain fit with descriptions of berserks. Diarrhea, vertigo, disorientation and hallucinations would seem to be drawbacks for a warrior.

As Fabing points out, the theory that berserks used some sort of mind-altering substance originated in 1784 with Samuel Lorenzo Ødman, a Swedish theologian, who read the sagas (or at least some of the fornaldarsögur) and concluded:

I am not of the opinion that these ecstasies can be explained as effects of a peculiar temperament or of autosuggestion because…they were not able to keep up their hated arrogance between paroxyms. (qtd. in Fabing 234. Ellipsis in Fabing)

Now his logic here seems flawed: because the frenzy isn’t essentially permanent, it can’t be auto-suggestion. Obviously, this is not true. One could think of berserker rages as big-boy temper tantrums: awful, but fortunately temporary. Ødman goes on to suggest that berserks used some substance from “the vegetable kingdom,” but that they “kept it secret so that their prestige would not be reduced by the general populace’s knowledge of the simplicity of the technique” (qtd. in Fabing 234). Ah, yes, they kept it secret. That’s convenient. Of course, what isn’t quite being said here is that there is NO EVIDENCE that berserks used any substance to achieve the berserker rage: NO REFERENCES to any ritual consumption of mushrooms or anything else. But if you have a cool theory, there’s no reason you should let a lack of evidence hold you back: you just have to come up with an excuse for why it doesn’t exist.

Lacking any reference to berserks consuming mushrooms, Ødman turns to accounts of the tribes of eastern Siberia and finds corroborating information:

What in particular seems to me to argue for flugswamp [the delightful Swedish name for fly agaric] is the fact that to partake of it is a custom from that part of Asia from which the pagan god Odin, with his pantheon, made their migration to our North. … The history of the Berserks in our North begins with Odin’s coming. (qtd. in Fabing 235)

While it was difficult to identify the source for the story of Berserk, son of Starkadder, this bit of misinformation is easy to identify. In both the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson euhemerizes the Norse gods, explaining that they were great men who came to be regarded as gods. He suggests that they originally came from Troy. After Virgil invented a nice history for Rome, many European lands came up with foundation myths centered on Troy. Snorri’s has about as much validity as any of the others (none whatsoever). But Snorri tosses in some completely bogus etymology as well: the gods were called Æsir because they came from Asia. Hector becomes Tror, which becomes Thor. I could go on. These etymologies are false.

So, to summarize Ødman’s argument: it is based on false assumptions; it has to explain away the complete lack of evidence; it relies on “historical” accounts that no one accepts. It doesn’t really look good for the magic mushroom theory.

It didn’t go away though. A century later, it was taken up by a Norwegian physician and botanist, F. C. Schübeler. Schübeler agreed with Ødman about pretty much everything, including the likely secrecy that surrounded the mushroom-eating. He considered other substances, but dismissed them as less likely culprits than fly agaric.

Fabing concludes by discussing his own observations. He had studied bufotenine, the active ingredient in a number of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants (and toads). He injected healthy, mentally stable prisoners with bufotenine and recorded the results. He concludes that the effects are very similar to the berserker rage, which is odd because rage is noticeably absent from his descriptions. The subjects had hallucinations and their faces became purple, but they also became “relaxed and languid” and “lay contentedly in bed, feeling pleasantly relaxed” (236). These prisoners would make disastrously bad berserks. In addition to being supremely relaxed, they suffered from severely impaired spacial perception, and other side-effects that would again be problematic for a warrior.

The whole magic-mushroom theory is based on cherry-picking certain side effects of hallucinogens (the effects of bufotenine can vary drastically) and certain descriptions of berserks and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. More importantly, it depends on a flawed justification (that it couldn’t be auto-suggestion because the state is temporary) and false history. Oh, and also there is no evidence the berserks used any mind-altering substance to achieve the berserker rage!


*I’m not sure where this version comes from. Very little information is provided. There’s no manuscript reference. Googling the title in Icelandic or English just turns up a lot of hits for Christopher Tolkien’s edition/translation of Hervarar saga. Although he uses the name that is given to this version, this is not the text he is editing and translating.

ES

References:

Fabing, Howard D. “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry.” The Scientific Monthly 83 (Nov. 1956): 232-237.

King Gautrek. Seven Viking Romances. Tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. London: Penguin, 1985.

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Tr. and ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Ed. Erling Monsen. Tr. Monsen and A. H. Smith. 1932 New York: Dover, 1990.

19 Responses to Science Gone Berserk

  1. Bradley A. Skene says:

    A very nice job.

    As I’m sure you’re aware these magic mushrooms are a universal plague, used to explain everything from the eucharist to the Eleusinian Mysteries and Socrates’ vision of the gods in the Phaedrus. I can’t tell you the berserk rage I went into while reading Ginzberg’s Ecstasies, only to have a boletus ex machina trotted out at the end.

    There must be some sort of psychoneurotic condition that makes people want to find a simple, physical, ‘scientific,’ explanation for psychological phenomena–as if psychology isn’t a science.

    • Eve says:

      What bothers me is the attempt to find a simple, physical, “scientific” explanation for psychological phenomena combined with many layers of mythology, folklore and good story-telling. The sagas are literature after all: certain elements of the literary berserksgangr (like shape-shifting) really can’t be explained scientifically or naturalistically.

  2. Pacal says:

    Great posting. That should bury the berserkers eating magic mushrooms and going crazy line of thought.

    It is of interest that your posting illustrates how an academic urban legend arises. In this case the legend of a man named Berserk, which is based on a misreading of a primary document and in ignorance of other primary documents. Someone repeats the story and then another and soon academics and others are copying the same bit of nonsense from each other.

    Another example is Columbus and the world is flat nonsense. Of course in this case academics with only a few exceptions billed it as nonsense. Still all sorts of people repeat to this day the crap that Europeans in general in 1492 thought the world was flat. The origin of this particular piece of historical urban legend seems to largely be the work of William Prescott and his history of the reign of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Apparently to spice up his book he added the totally spurious nonsense about Columbus being opposed because these people thought the world was flat. Well guess what Europeans of Columbus’ time thought the world was round. THe issue wasn’t whether or not Asia could be reached by sailing west but how far away Asia was. The idea of sailing west to Asia had been considered since Greco-Roman times. Columbus thought Asia was c. 4000 miles away. Isabella and Fredinand’s scientific advisors thought it was more than double that distance. Well guess what they were right. Columbus ran into America instead.

    Another example of an academic urban legend is the whole returning “white” god mythos concerning the Aztecs and Incas. This one unfortunately has a lot academic respectability unlike the Columbus and the flat earth nonsense.

    A final example is the myth that Isabeau, Queen of France, publically claimed that her son Charles VII of France, (Joan of Arc’s Dauphin)was the illgetimate child of one of her (alleged) lovers. THere is no evidence for this it appears to be a complete concoction and several other hoary historical urban legends emerged from it. In this case the myth that Charles VII worried about hios legitimacy and that Joan of Arc reassured Charles VII about his legitimacy. Those are also myths.

    Of course you are absolutely right to point out that there is NO evidence that the berserker rage was induced by drugs. Perhaps a bit more research in battle “frenzy”, which is a recognized phenomena rather than more fantasizing about mushrooms might help in understanding the phenomena.

    • Eve says:

      I thought the “world is flat” thing came from Washington Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

      As far as Berserk is concerned, I should emphasize that as far as I can tell the story is a garbled misreading, but I’ve only been trying to track him down for a few days. It’s entirely possible that I’ve missed something, although I’m pretty sure I’ve looked at the main sources. Of the main works that mention Starkad, that one version of the Hervor/Heidrek saga seems to be the only one that makes the family of berserks descendants of Starkad’s. In at least one version of the Story (Saxo Grammaticus), Starkad is the one who kills all the berserk brothers (in Saxo, there are only nine of them rather than twelve).

      I should mention that I’ve discovered that this version of Hervarar saga seems to be the H-text, from Hauksbok, a very important Icelandic manuscript from the early 14th century. This is actually the earliest of the manuscripts (I think); however, according to Christopher Tolkien, “H is a drastic and by no means careful abridgement of X [the no-longer extant source of the the H-text and the U-text], with the added complication that Haukr [Erlendsson,who compiled Hauksbok](if, as seems likely enough, he was responsible for this version and not merely its scribe) had available another source over and above X.” In addition, the ending of the saga is missing in Hauksbok. So, based on what Tolkien says, the H-text is not the preferred text for most editions or translations.

      • Pacal says:

        Your right Washington Irving did indeed write that. However William Prescott, a vastly more respected historian, (He wrote two of my favorite books books History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru), used this notion in his book about the reign of Queen Isabella and Ferdinand. Because of Prescott’s vastly greater prestige as an historian than someone like Irving the story really got traction from his boosting of it. Of course Prescott did not orginate the story which is why I used the term “largely”.

        Do you have any favorite academic “urban legends”?

  3. Bob says:

    Pacal, your comment number was 666. That is all.

    RJB

    • Pacal says:

      Yes my plan to bring on the end of days proceeds! First Skeptical Humanities then the world! Then heaven itself and I will reign forever and ever!!

      Now if I could only remove that number from forehead.

  4. Ryan F says:

    Awesome post.

    I’d love to see a similar takedown of ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials; I always have a few students who latch on to that one. There really is an appeal to the mundane scientific explanation for a cultural phenomenon that doesn’t quite fit with modern sensibilities.

  5. Bob says:

    Ryan, we’re on it.

    The Salem witch trials were caused by an unusual concentration of witches in Salem, MA.
    :)

    RJB

    • Ryan F says:

      Okay, I guess there are worse explanations than ergotism.

      I imagine the History Channel would probably go with your version of the story though. Nostradamus and 2012 would also be involved somehow.

  6. Bradley A. Skene says:

    Reading your profile, I guess you were trained by Tom Shipey. No wonder you’re clever.

  7. Eve says:

    Ryan,

    Interesting you should mention ergot because that’s been used to explain berserks as well. For instance, in Introduction to Green Chemistry (New York: Marcel Dekker, 2001), Albert S. Matlack, an adjunct professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Delaware, says, “Vikings went berserk after eating derivatives of lysergic acid made by the ergot fungus growing on rye” (2). I’m not sure how this would work: one day some warrior ate some bad bread, and all the others said, “Dude, look at Thorbjorn go! That is so totally awesome! Shame about the gangrene.” And then they all decided to do it. Somehow. Without killing themselves.

    Apparently some years ago, there was a British television program about berserks (Channel 5?). They took a Viking re-enactor, gave him fly agaric and booze (separate tests, I think) and observed his fighting skills: they were much worse than when he was sober.

    “Coming up on the History Channel: Berserk Witches of Doom. Were the Salem witches actually the fearsome Scandinavian warriors known as berserks? Are berserk witches depicted at Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu and Easter Island? What did Nostradamus say about these berserk witches in his vague gibberish? Find out on Berserk Witches of Doom.”

    • Michal Mazur says:

      Greetings everyone!
      1. I would like to notice that overthrowing “ergot theory” won’t be so simple, since archeological findings of Cordred Ware culture has proven that people of that group actually made some beer also from ergot-contaminated rye. There are still some traces of it in some pots (which once contained alcohol), especially found in mound-burials of indo-european warrior elite. ASAF using of ergot hasn’t really started with bread but it was connected with alcohol fermentation (process which was carried to Europe. I’m not very good at chemistry but I have some basic idea that during fermentation not only carbohydrates from rye but also psychoactive substances from ergot are converted. Although I have no idea what substances might come from that. I only know that ergot alkaloids were (and they still are) used as bleeding diminisher, which might be useful in battle or after it.
      2. Secondly – that test with Viking re-enactor. You said they gave him fly agaric and booze. Well, ih had some effects so we might assume that the dose was al least enogh if not too much. But what were the proportions between fly agaric and booze? And basic things: was fly argaic dried/and if yes – how long and in what temperature? When it was picked (season/time and stage of mushroom’s development)? Was it later put into alcohol or consumed separately? Was it consumed as cold or rather hot drink/meal? (this is important since it gives two different effects – one is relaxing and hallucinogenic state, the other one is altered aggresion and probably sth more). And finally, we can’t be sure if Amanita muscaria used in that test was right one. There are around 50 of that type, but it was suggested by John Mann that it might be rather Amanita pantherina, since it gives more rage-like state of mind.
      Shamanistic beliefs and traditions suggest us that also a place in which mushrooms grow is important – but i don’t know why.
      3. Some things with mushrooms from Amanita family used like war-booster occured even in modern times – on beginning of XVIII cent. by Swedish soldiers (Great Northern War 1700–21). These were used by Finnish troops fighting with Soviet Union (1939-40) and by Soviet soldiers (of Siberian origin) in end phase of World War II. Not sure about first case, but in two last i remember it was connected with alcohol

      I guess you were angered by badly-made History Channel documentary, but such historical things should be taken according to “sine ira et studio” principle. And still, there are more questions than answers.

      Regards
      Michal Mazur

      • Michal Mazur says:

        Sorry, I meant Eve had mentioned that test

      • Eve says:

        First, let me answer question number 2: I have no idea. I haven’t actually seen the program. I saw a mention of it somewhere, and I believe I tried to find it online but without success. I should try again.

        More generally, my problem with all the arguments in favor of the berserks using [whatever substance] to achieve the rage is that there is no evidence for it. Traces of ergot in pots seems to me to be evidence of traces of ergot in pots. It is not evidence that berserks intentionally used ergot-laced ale. There is no evidence that they consumed any substance (including ale/beer/mead) to induce the rage. There is no mention of any sort of shamanistic ritual to induce the rage. It often seems to come on spontaneously. In one saga (I believe it’s Vatnsdaela saga), there is a character who is unable to control his tendency to go berserk. In other cases, berserks just seem to work themselves up into a rage. No substance necessary.

  8. […] a gauntlet not so much thrown down as dropped suggestively by Ryan F in the comments of Eve’s wildly successful berserker post a few weeks back: I’d love to see a similar takedown of ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials; […]

  9. Pacal says:

    Michal. The problem with your arguement is that there is still NO evidence that the Berserker warriors used magic mushrooms to induce Berserker frenzy in battle or ergot. Your examples from the Great Northern War, The Russio-Finnish War and parts of the German-Soviet War do not prove much of anything. Battlefield frenzy is a well established phenomena that ussually does not require the ingestation of drugs but is produced by psychology and vbrain chemistry. That Shamanistic cultures have used such substances to induce altered states of consciousness in no way suports the idea that Berserker warriors took magic mushrooms.

  10. Michal Mazur says:

    1. Well, that ergot theories about Salem witch trials are bit funny for me as well – you can’t simply explain occurence of such events only by hallucinogenic intoxication of people. There are also some pseudo-research on berserkers as well

    I never claimed that usage of “magic mushrooms” is condition “sine qua non” of frenzy (but honestly better term for that state of mind mentioned in sources as óđr/wod should be rather “extasy”- its rather altered state of mind not rage, since it was connected also with poetry). Amanita muscaria would be rather one of possible ways to get into – but not the only one. Personally I claim that most important thing in berserk phenomenon was “brain” indeed (because of psychology as well as chemistry) and human body under certain circumstances (like fasting, chanting, dancing whipping and even more bizzare techniques) changes its methabolism and can synthesize the same chemicals as those found in certain psychoactive substances. Instead of these deprivative and generally nasty techniques which generate these substances one could easily get a dose of them, or combine techniques with substances to be more certain that it will work. Different substances/or different techniques depending on what state of mind and body is desired – it may range from shamanistic divination to battle óđr/wod.

    2. Folklore of southern Germany links Wotan (Odin for northern germanic tribes) – god of óđr/wod (from which these namemes are derived) and since berserkers (but also some other aspects like poetry) with Amanita muscaria. Odin chased by demons escapes on his horse – both embracing their óđr/wod in desperate attempt to escape – and bloody red foam dripping from steed’s mouth is said to become fly argaic in next year.

    There are also numerous depictions of Amanita muscaria – found on more luxurious items (like razors) from warriors’ burials. I don’t claim that all of these warriors were berserk – but it indicates it had certain meaning for them

    3. Read carefully- I said only that ergot and its derived substances reduce haemorrhage. To cause altered state of mind and to diminish hemmorhage (no matter if it’s only nosebleed or battle wounds) are two different things.

    4. You can’t simply reject those examples from the Great Northern War, The Russio-Finnish War claiming that they do not prove much of anything, It’s like XIX-century scholar, who claims that “if not mentoned in sources from that time it was not existing”, completely ignoring continuity of various traditions. Look on the folklore of Saami people how much it takes from shamanism and Old Norse beliefs (which also stem from shamanism) – and fly argaic usage both for divination and war purposes was part of shamanistic traditions

    Hope you will understand one day that scepticism is good thing – but only until it starts to limit our horizon

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